Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Ertugrul in the age of Erdogan

As a child, I had thrilled to the story of a powerful, warrior woman on the throne of Delhi but had never wondered about who her ancestors were. I had not thought of medieval Turks as nomads, casting about in whirlpools of contested nationalities. In the modern Indian imagination—especially the Hindutva narrative—Turks are seen as usurpers of power, lumped with Persians, Chagtais and Mongols like Changez Khan who was the Oguz Turks’ biggest foe. Through watching Resurrection: Ertugrul, I began to see them as landless tribes whose only chance at life was a strong sword arm.

The world these characters inhabit is an intensely cosmopolitan one. The bazaars, inns, port towns are melting pots of race and civilisation. The actors come in all shades of brown, reflective of the mixed Greek, Roman, Armenian, Arab, Assyrian and Moroccan ancestry in the region. Watching them I felt something shifting but it took me about a hundred episodes to understand what it was. It was the stone of cultural imperialism and it weighed a few centuries... our awareness of the greater world was minimal—everything between Bombay and Britain was an indistinct blob in our minds. Millions of South Asians worked in the Gulf but we didn’t know its history. We read about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the newspapers mentioned the decade long Iran-Iraq war before that. But we didn’t know how Iraq and Kuwait came to be on the map.

All I knew about Turkey was a couple of lines in my history textbook: The Indian struggle for independence was entwined with the Khilafat movement, which opposed British attempts to strip the Caliph of all power. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk defeated colonisers and made it a secular nation.

In fiction, I read about King Arthur, Joan of Arc, Papal politics. I read about the Crusades and knew that these were wars fought between Christian knights and Muslim hordes. The knights, I thought of as vaguely noble: knight in shining armour; knight to the rescue of damsel in distress; knight on a white horse; people “knighted” after great achievements. The Muslim hordes, I thought of as... The truth is, I did not think about the Muslims at all.

Read the full text of my essay on cultural politics, Netflix, and the shaping of minds via storytelling and media exposure in Fountain Ink magazine : 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

A profile of Akhil Katyal, bilingual poet and rising star on Delhi's literary horizon

By now, he had published his first poem in the school magazine. It was written in Hindi, during his “Casio phase”. He had been taking private music lessons for a few years, tabla in Dehradun and Casio (the keyboard) in Lucknow. A man came to their Ganga Sinchai Puram home and taught him and his brother to play simple Bollywood tunes. “It was songs like “Roop Suhana Lagta Hai”, and “Didi Tera Devar Deewana”. I played these tunes at public events, especially at the colony’s officer’s club, where children would perform at dinners.”
It was the 150th-year celebration of their school, and both his brother and he took ill. He was still keen on participating somehow, so he wrote a poem for the school magazine. It was called “Ghar”, and he admits he had help with it. “I wrote the first six lines and my keyboard teacher wrote the second half.”
Over the years, his language skills were getting sharper but so was the pressure to focus on science. “My mother is a double graduate. My father went to IIT before he joined the state irrigation department. Most of the men on either side of the family were in engineering or the air force.”
Katyal ended up studying science for another two years, but it was a miserable time. After school, he was sent to a private coaching centre, full of young men preparing to crack the big entrance exams – medicine and engineering. He began to cut classes. “I would take my moped and wander around Lucknow. I’d go to the imambara, or to the riverside. I rode far out, waiting until it was time to go home.”
He fared badly in his 12th board exams and failed the IIT prelims. His parents finally took him to a career counsellor who tested his aptitude and told them that the boy’s interest and talent clearly lay in English literature. “She said, ‘Take him to Delhi University and let him study literature’.” By now, his older brother had been put through the grind and ultimately allowed to go his way, into hotel management. “So I was a little freer to do this non-serious thing, literature.”

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Naught Naught Narrative Justice

For a moment there, the prospect hovered on the horizon: a female 007. Fans need not worry. It hasn’t happened yet. However, a less Bond-like Bond is on the anvil. In the wake of #MeToo and a string of feminist critiques, the world’s most famous spy is set to get a makeover and a woman is helping write him as less of a “seedy, sexist dinosaur”, as Danny Boyle reportedly described the character.

Other famous screen characters, however, have already seen female reprisals. Spymaster ‘M’, Bond’s handler, was a woman for a while. The show Elementary, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, has a female Watson. Ghostbusters was rebooted with an all-woman lead cast. Even Dr. Who has found a female incarnation.

One can argue that these reprisals were inevitable, particularly for characters who are now firmly embedded in pop culture. With actors and show creators pushing back, demanding to place women in compelling, powerful roles, it was only a matter of time. In 2010, The Guardian had published a story headlined: “Will we ever see a female-led franchise?” By 2017, bookies were reportedly taking bets on who the next Dr. Who would be, and there were at least two women in the reckoning as serious contenders.

Arguments have also unfolded about whether such changes amount to tokenism. In the case of Bond, for instance, the films work as a predictable cocktail of sex, danger and machismo. Some critics have argued that, given its genre, female antagonists are already powerful — ruthless, clever, using their looks and sex to their advantage, as Bond himself does. The more interesting question, in my view, is not who writes or plays a particular character but how our view of the world changes as a result of the story being re-imagined, cast anew in a new socio-political framework.

An obvious example is the retelling of fairy tales. In the cultural zine, Toast, writer Anne Thériault argued that fairy tales were probably women’s narratives to start with. They spell out fantasies — “a prince, a castle, a happy ending” — and fears, such as being taken advantage of by a man or losing one’s children. It wasn’t until the Grimm brothers gained control of fairy tales that “beautiful and reasonably spirited young women” morphed into obedient and hard-working ones.

Then, there is the question of medium and money. Storytelling forms have changed dramatically over the last 200 years. Women were rarely in control of the popular narrative because they did not control printing presses, newspapers, or film studios. With the tide turning in recent decades, we are seeing fairy tales being re-interpreted again. Newer versions, particularly animated films, tend to portray princesses as headstrong and quite capable of looking after themselves.

In literature, women have often trained a feminist lens on society. Jane Austen’s sardonic novels discussed property inheritance and marriage laws that placed women’s money at the disposal of their husbands. The Brontë sisters too wrote of the trials and hopes of young women who don’t always have parents looking out for them. Charlotte Brontë gave us a memorable character in Jane Eyre: she does not allow anyone to ride roughshod on her dignity, not even her boss, and she dares to dream of love. However, there is a darkness embedded in the novel in the form of a mentally unstable Bertha, Rochester’s wife, who is imprisoned in her own home and whose existence is not acknowledged by her husband.

This dark corner of the novel captured the interest of another writer, Jean Rhys. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is a beautiful Creole woman from a wealthy family in Jamaica. By Rochester’s own admission, his father encouraged him to marry her for her wealth. But once he sees that she is mentally unstable, why does he not leave her in Jamaica and return to England? Why does he bring her to a new country where she is friendless, and lock her away for ten long years?

Rhys, who grew up in the Caribbean herself, brought a fresh interpretation to the story in the form of Wide Sargasso Sea, taking the story back to Bertha’s mother, a Creole woman and a single mother of two. Bertha, whose name here is Antoinette, grows up beautiful and is left vulnerable after her mother’s death. She is wealthy and in marrying her, Rochester gains control of her fate, even of her name.

Both stories are about women’s relationships in the context of wealth and personal freedom. Rhys' version is not unsympathetic to the governess. However, she chooses to shine a light over the character who was, literally, hidden out of sight and not allowed her say. Several other women have examined the classics, looking for gaps, silences, shadowy figures.

Margaret Atwood wrote The Penelopiad based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Penelope, married to Odysseus, is seen in Western literature as a symbol of fidelity: she waited for her husband for 20 years, holding fort for him and refusing to accept offers of remarriage. She must be clever, careful not to hurt too many egos. In her slender novella, Atwood tells the story from Penelope’s perspective, also giving a voice to the twelve maids who served her honestly, only to be killed by Odysseus when he returns. Penelope reflects on the events of her own childhood, her brief marriage to a husband taken away by a war driven by vanity and ego, even as a bevy of suitors mill around, eager to seize control of her estate.

With The Other Boleyn Girl, Phillipa Gregory brought back into public consciousness Mary, the sister who was also the king’s mistress and who, unlike the ill-fated Anne, survived. The novel also highlights the powerlessness of daughters of the time: even those born into noble families had very little control over their lives and were often used as sexual pawns by their fathers.

Another famous retelling is The Mists of Avalon. Author Marion Zimmer Bradley picked up the myth of King Arthur, wizards, knights and all, and wrote it from the point of view of his half-sister, Morgan. Arthur’s reign coincided with the rise of Christianity, and the decline of pagan beliefs. In older narratives, Morgan or Morgana was sometimes cast as a sorceress who plotted against Arthur. In Zimmer’s version, Morgan is rooted in Celtic culture, trained as a sort of oracle-healer with magical powers. In her world, a goddess spirit is worshipped. The contest of power is configured in the novel as not just between kings or siblings but also between the feminine divine and the masculine divine.

Retelling the classics, however, is not a new trend. Across cultures, we have been telling the same stories, layering myth upon myth. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have been told dozens of times and with each retelling, certain characters get a bigger platform, or they begin to speak in new languages, bringing a degree of cultural agency to the speakers of that language.

Women have also retold India’s epic narratives. In recent years, Telugu writer Volga lends fresh voice to women from the Ramayana, Sita and Surpanakha. Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions retells the Mahabharata from the perspective of dozens of near-invisible minor characters, and with an exhausted Satyavati as narrator. Odia writer Pratibha Ray retells the epic in Draupadi’s voice in her celebrated novel, Yajnaseni.

Underpinning these retellings is the idea of narrative justice. Female characters have rarely been centre-stage in the great epics or screen fantasies of the last century. Sometimes they occupied the margins. Where they did have a major share in the story, it was either to enable, support, or thwart the male protagonists, or to be the prize that must be won. Now, with women occupying more and more public and creative roles and with some semblance of a share in media resources, they have begun to seek out stories that allow us to collectively rethink gender and power.

A lot has changed since Ian Fleming first wrote his spy thrillers and perhaps it is only a matter of time before we see a female Bond. We do already have Salt occupying the high-voltage female spy thriller zone. In contemporary times, particularly for those of us who live in nations other than the U.S. or the U.K., a better question to ask might be: why do people keep making (and watching) Bond films?

Will the politics of the film change merely through the display of Bond as a more vulnerable man, or perhaps a tough-as-nails woman, as long as bombs keep going off in the background with no account of collateral damage? What new balance of power will the retold story serve? Your guess is as good as mine.

This essay was first published in The Hindu
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